Finding humanity in The Act of Killing

by Jasper Yeo / Film Columnist • January 29, 2014

As the Oscar season rolls its way into every media outlet, the time has come to catch up on the contending pictures for both the major and often-overlooked categories. Luckily, this year, the documentary category has been graced with several great films, including The Act of Killing, a movie that has made a huge splash. Directed by Danish filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer and backed by the usual documentary suspects Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line), the movie had a limited release this past summer, and has thankfully been made available on Netflix.

The Act of Killing examines the perpetrators of a nationwide massacre of dissidents in the wake of Indonesia’s 1965 military revolution. This government has been in power ever since, and thus the former death squad members are allowed to bank on their reputation as killers.

Oppenheimer gives some of these men (chiefly Anwar Congo and Herman Koto) free reign to create their own filmed reenactments of their interrogations and killings. However, the director wisely refrains from much editorializing as he follows these contradiction-filled individuals. Needless to say, everybody will have a different reaction to the film.

Although The Act of Killing tracks its subjects both on and off the set of their reenactments, the movie sheds a strong light on how the silver screen affects behavior. This isn’t fretting over small-scale cultural values either, as hundreds of thousands of lives were at stake. In the 60s, people like Congo were “movie theater gangsters,” essentially ticket scalpers and thugs.

Through paramilitary groups that acted as an arm of organized crime, they carried out the executions, using their love of icons like Brando and Elvis to influence, or perhaps distance themselves from, their actions. The oft-repeated Indonesian translation of  “gangster” as “free man” also adds fuel to the view that the killers had been seeking their own twisted form of free-spirited independence that was so common in movie stars.

Congo and company took this analogy to heart, it seems, because the reenactments created by these men showcase a dark, surrealist irony. Congo’s movie is an elaborate procession of dancing girls and comedic cross-dressing from Herman Koto, culminating with his victims thanking him for sending them to heaven.

In another reenactment, Congo plays the part of a communist dissident  interrogated, blindfolded and mock-garroted with razor wire. In a moment of clarity, Congo watches footage of his reenactment and asks if his victims felt the same way. Oppenheimer responds: “Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse, because they knew they were being killed.” This empathy, however hesitant, seems comforting, but it ultimately does precious little for those killed.

“The key,” states one former-executioner, “is finding a way not to feel guilty.” The subjects of The Act of Killing seem to be well aware of what the audience might think about them. Cold matter-of-fact statements are offered up that, while dripping with cynicism, are difficult to argue with. War criminals these men may be, but “war crimes are decided by the winner.” They can afford to revel in their status based on a foundation of murder and brutality. However, this does not mean they aren’t aware that they were the aggressors in the killings. In any case, they were aware enough to rationalize their actions.

Oppenheimer’s film caused Indonesia itself to reexamine its history and policies after its release. It does what every documentary aspires to do: provoke discussion both among audience members and on the international stage, because it becomes very difficult to compartmentalize these people and their massacres. For all the terrible acts they are unrepentant about, they are recognizably human. While this may not mean the average person is likely to commit such atrocities, we can watch how time, place, lifestyle, and yes, fiction, can play a role in shaping someone who could. The Act of Killing should bring people together in dialogue, the opposite of distancing one’s actions from oneself, as the movie theater gangsters did.